- Fraternity Pledge's Family Files Wrongful Death Lawsuit
- Fraternity Marches to End Violence
- Transgender Policy Updates
- Recent Developments with Campus Security Authorities
- Lawsuits Filed Following UVA Article Retraction
- Are Schools Abusing Interim Suspensions?
Newsletter > November 2015 > "Fraternity Pledge’s Family Files Wrongful Death Lawsuit"
Fraternity Pledge’s Family Files Wrongful Death Lawsuit
The family of a West Virginia University fraternity pledge who died from alcohol poisoning has filed a wrongful death suit.1
The suit, filed October 8, 20152 in the Monongalia County Circuit Court,3 alleges negligence and related claims against West Virginia University, the national Kappa Sigma Fraternity, the local Gamma Phi chapter of Kappa Sigma, the Kappa Sigma House Association, two individual Gamma Phi members, two individual property owners, and twenty “John Doe” defendants.4 The family seeks compensatory and punitive damages.5
The complaint alleges that on November 12, 2014, Kappa Sigma hosted a mandatory “Big/Little” ceremony for its pledges which Nolan Burch, 18, attended.6 According to the suit, Burch’s “big brother” gave him a bottle of liquor and, along with other fraternity members, coerced him to drink it and other alcoholic beverages.7 Burch later became unresponsive and was transported to a hospital, where he died on November 14, 2014.8 Medical tests showed that Burch had a blood alcohol content of 0.493.9
The event’s “master of ceremonies,” Jordan Hankins, and Burch’s “big brother,” Richard Schwartz, are named as Defendants in the suit.10 Morgantown Police charged both men with hazing and conspiracy to commit hazing following Burch’s death.11 The judge originally assigned to the criminal case, Phillip Gaujot, recused himself due to his prior membership in Kappa Sigma.12
The suit alleges that WVU knew or had reason to know that Kappa Sigma and the Gamma Phi chapter promoted hazing and excessive/underage drinking and did nothing to stop this behavior.13 It further claims that Kappa Sigma and the Gamma Phi chapter failed to develop policies and implement measures to curb excessive drinking,14 and that the owners of the property where the party took place were complicit in the use of their property as a venue for excessive drinking.15
CNN recently reported that, prior to the event, WVU knew that Kappa Sigma had a history of “occurrences of concern,” including “behaving inappropriately and hosting an unsanctioned event,” but had not made this information public.16 Two days before the event, the national Kappa Sigma office notified WVU that it was pulling the Gamma Phi chapter’s charter.17 According to the national office, it had directed the Gamma Phi chapter to stop holding functions, but the directive was ignored.18
Terry Connors, attorney for the Burch family, stated, “The allegations that we’ve made in this complaint deal with conduct that should’ve been undertaken by the university to protect the students there from these kinds of activities and especially in this situation where there have been significant problems with this fraternity on prior occasions.”19
1 Jeff Preval, Family of Teen Who Died at West Virginia University Files Lawsuit, WGRZ.com (Oct. 9, 2015, 8:13 PM), http://www.wgrz.com/story/news/2015/10/09/lawsuit-west-virginia-williamsville/73686350.
3 Complaint at 1, Burch v. Kappa Sigma Fraternity, No. ______ (W. Va. Cir. Ct. October 8, 2015), available at https://lintvwivb.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/see-the-burch-lawsuit-here.pdf.
5 Id. at 29.
6 Id. at ¶¶ 3, 77–96.
7 Id. at ¶¶ 98–102.
8 Id. at ¶¶ 103-115.
9 West Virginia Frat Pledge Nolan Burch Had 0.493 Blood-Alcohol Level, NBC News (Jan 28, 2015, 8:21 AM), http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/west-virginia-frat-pledge-nolan-burch-had-0-493-blood-n295101.
10 Complaint at ¶¶ 40–47, 93, 97.
11 Update: Second WVU Frat Member Arraigned in Hazing Death, WSAZ.com (Feb. 13, 2015, 4:19 PM), http://www.wsaz.com/home/headlines/WVU-Fraternity-Member-Charged-in-Hazing-Death-291571271.html.
12 Bethany Butler, Judge Removes Himself from Case Involving WVU Hazing Incident, WBOY.com (Aug. 25, 2015, 6:01 PM), http://www.wboy.com/story/29878379/judge-removes-himself-from-case-involving-wvu-hazing-incident.
13 Complaint at ¶¶ 151–61.
14 Id. at ¶¶ 120–30.
15 Id. at ¶¶ 169–75.
16 Sara Ganim, Schools Knew of Trouble Before Student Deaths, CNN.com (Nov. 3, 2015, 9:18 AM), http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/02/us/fraternity-hazing-deaths.
19 Preval, supra note 2.